Two young people wearing face masks look out over a scenic vista.

Feeling like all the days are running together? Looking for connection or a sense of purpose? Start here.

We’ve passed the longest, darkest day of the year, but many of us are still dealing with loss and isolation this winter—and spring may still feel far away. Of course sometimes it’s good to simply allow ourselves to feel our feelings, but if you’re looking for a way to shift your focus this season and engage in a positive way, we have some ideas for you.

Most of us are aware that having a sense of purpose helps us deal with our suffering and giving to others can boost our mood. But did you know recent studies also show that the joy you feel when you give to others doesn’t diminish the way more self-centered joys do?  

If you choose to give your time or resources to others, or to a cause greater than yourself, you probably won’t regret it. Here are three creative ways to give back right now.

Become a citizen scientist.

Scientific research depends on data—and sometimes that data is difficult to collect. Maybe it depends on assessing conditions across a wide swath of landscape. Or maybe it requires access to remote, difficult-to-access environments like high-altitude alpine tundra, rushing rivers or snowy peaks. This is where citizen scientists come in.

Regular people like us can help researchers by collecting data in the field. Organizations like Adventure Scientists and Community Snow Observations connect people with the tools they need to easily gather observations that are crucial to scientists’ research. CSO looks for volunteers to help measure alpine snow depth, while Adventure Scientists supports multiple projects, from tracking timber to fight illegal logging to surveying roadkill along Montana highways. 

Two Adventure Scientists volunteers collect data from a river while crouching on the snowy riverbank.

Volunteering is a great way to add meaning to outdoor pursuits you may already be doing or planning, and it makes a great excuse to get out if you need a little extra motivation. But even when you’re stuck at home, you can still volunteer. The Smithsonian Institute and NASA both have opportunities for people to help just by processing data at home. You, too, could be reviewing images from outer space for signs of distant worlds! 

Help fulfill nearby needs.

If you’re feeling lonely or disconnected—who isn’t these days?—research supports volunteering to help others as one way to feel better. Volunteer work is proven to boost multiple aspects of well-being. But also, happy, positive people tend to volunteer more. So it may be even more interesting that recent research reveals that people with lower levels of well-being may actually get even bigger boosts from volunteering than those with higher levels of well-being to start with.

CNN created a tool to help guide volunteers in finding ways to help during the pandemic. And if you look locally, you may find things that resonate with you and your lifestyle. For example, if you’re a human-powered sport fan, the Seattle Pedaling Relief Project tasks volunteers on bikes with supporting community members in need. So you can help others by making food bank deliveries and also boost your physical and mental health by getting out for some fresh air and exercise on two wheels. 

Two youngsters practice mountain bike skills while wearing face masks.

Pass your outdoor skills on to others.

Remember when you were just getting started in the outdoors? Maybe it was a parent or a friend who took you out to show you how to tie a figure-eight knot or how to set up a tent. Or maybe you signed up for a clinic or course to learn how to read a map or place trad gear on a climbing route. Those skills were the key to your freedom and enjoyment in the outdoors, right? So why not pass those gifts on to someone else?

Look to your local climbing organization, mountain club or hiking/mountaineering organization like the Mountaineers to find ways to pass your skills on to others. With social distancing and mask wearing, the outdoors is one of the safest places we can be, so with extra precautions in place, many organizations are still helping connect pros and mentors with less experienced outdoorspeople looking to learn. Consider taking a minute to ponder what skills you may have to share, and look for ways to give back.

If you’re feeling down, lonely or anxious this season, know you’re not alone, and it’s OK to feel that way. It’s a stressful time, and self-care and getting help if you need it are both crucial. Know that it’s just fine to look after yourself and not increase your stress by adding tasks to your life. But if you’re looking for ways to connect and feel purpose, we hope this helps. 

Photos from Adventure Scientists and Ryan Flood.